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Recruiting Intelligence

Ouch! One Third Of Colleges Show Declining International Enrollment

By and large, international student enrollment in U.S. universities has been growing steadily for the past 60 years. (We acknowledge a few years during the six decade period that show a minor decline.) We just got back from another exciting and well attended national Nafsa conference in St. Louis which confirmed the incredible interest by academic institutions in internationalizing their campus and growing international student enrollment. Yet, as our summer and fall efforts to recruit heat up, we need to throw a litte bit of cold water to dampen our excitement, if that metaphor works for you.

Recently, we have shown you our analysis of the success stories of international students recruitment (see Intead Insights "So You Want More International Students...," and blogs "What's the Hottest Region for International Students?"). We've also reviewed successful recruiting channels such as agency use (Intead Insights "Will Using Recruiting Agencies Bring You More Students?"). While we were analyzing these data sources, we realized that the average figures reported for international enrollment growth mask an interesting trend within the recent IIE Open Doors data.

For many universities, international enrollment appears quite cyclical. Graph 1 (below) shows the breakout of 1,803 institutions, part of the Open Door report, by universities that have shown increasing, steady or a declining international enrollment. You will notice that nearly 66% reported increasing enrollment; but, almost 33% reported declining enrollment during the past four years.

So, we dug deeper into the data. Do we have your attention?

Graph 1

Graph 2 (below) shows you the break out for the 31% of universities recording declining figures. 60% of that group had declines of 10% to 50% (green and purple slices of the pie), which we would describe as concerning to rather alarming. If you are in the categories with declines of 50% or more, your international program seems to be collapsing.

We don't have access to the details of the Open Doors data that would tell us specific explanations for these dramatic declines. We can certainly speculate that these schools have relied on single source channels for recruitment. For example, perhaps they relied on a large number of Indian students from particular program or agent, or a particular government sponsored program like the Saudi Arabian scholarship program. We can imagine a school with a concentrated enrollment channel that gets excluded from a specific program, for justified or unjustified reasons. Or perhaps an unfortunate spate of negative publicity goes viral.

Relying heavily on a single channel that delivers a large concentration of international students from a single country brings other challenges for the on-campus community and classroom dynamic. One college admissions officer told us about the swarm of Korean students moving across campus. Faculty did not appreciate the way these students kept to themselves, rarely engaging with the community around them. Yet we know that achieving a balanced mix of enrolled international students presents very real, practical challenges. It is a challenge to cover multiple international markets each with its own media channels. And the pure size of prospective student pools in markets such as India and China make it difficult to allocate resources cost-efficiently to smaller international markets.

As in domestic enrollment, heads of admissions have many considerations for their international recruiting efforts, managing the delicate balance of factors including gender, qualification, concentration, geography, and not least, revenue needs.

The message from this analysis is our usual drumbeat: international enrollment is important for many universities to deliver a global and diverse classroom for U.S. students, as well as for revenue-generation to support institutional growth. Yet international recruitment presents even more challenges than domestic recruitment and requires a strong institutional commitment and engagement by all stakeholders on and off campus. The admissions department is the critical player, and certainly should not be the only player. Long-term international enrollment success requires many institutional building blocks including strong faculty engagement, interested and committed alumni and student and career support services.

Universities will have to show strong resolve and commitment due to the increasing global competition for the growing number of qualified, tuition-paying, prospective students. Strengthen your institutional commitment and set realistic expectations before you invest your valuable resources. With nearly 33% of institutions showing declining international student populations in "good macro times," we see a clear indication that thoughtful allocation of your international recruitment resources is essential.

That the overall number of international students enrolling in U.S. institutions continues to grow ("good macro times") while nearly 33% of these institutions are showing declining numbers means that those declining are clearly doing something wrong. They are failing to invest in marketing channels that work. We know you know this, but we'll say it anyway: The data is out there to help guide our international marketing efforts. It's a matter of collecting and analyzing the data on an ongoing basis so that, year over year, your return on investment improves. If you are not measuring your results, we fear you will join the wrong slice of the pie.

Graph 2


Topics: Insights